Lassen County, a northern county of 30,000 people straddling the Nevada border, became the first county in California this week to fall back on their reopening plans following a jump in the number of coronavirus cases there.
The first cases in Lassen County
Until May 22nd, Lassen County did not have a single case of COVID-19 coronavirus. However, according to Lassen County Health and Social Services Director Barbara Longo, a resident who had recently traveled outside the county had come back positive. Health care workers immediately went into action and tracked down everyone she had gotten in contact with.
“We got on it right away,” said Longo in a statement. “I’m telling you, we got the call Friday night and got all that testing done Saturday, Sunday and Monday.”
However, the response wasn’t quick enough to stop significant spread. By Wednesday 5 people had the coronavirus in the county. While the number may seem small compared other California counties getting hundreds of new cases a day, but the county had broken the state threshold of greater reopenings and being allowed to go fully onto the next phase if virus rates were fewer than 1 in 10,000 people.
“Things just started to get more normal around here,” said Susanville resident Don Prospers. “We were proud to be the only unaffected county here too.”
“I guess that’s over with.”
Many Lassen County residents had resisted being tested for quite some time before the mini-outbreak. Resident polls showed that only 1 in 10 people wanted to be tested. The County itself was so confident that it was one of the first counties to begin to plan to reopen in April, ultimately reopening with state approval on May 11th.
However, this week saw a jump in tests due to the number of new cases. With the state providing 20,000 tests, more and more county residents have been going through tests. As of Thursday just under 1,000 people have been tested, but that number is significantly higher than only the few hundred that had been taken throughout the pandemic.
County praised for response, other smaller counties may follow under similar circumstances
In an AP interview, California Health and Human Services spokeswoman Kate Folmar praised Lassen County’s response, attesting that this is how the system is designed to work.
“Lassen County saw a change in their data, and their public health officer decided to slow its re-openings. In this new normal, local public health officers are the best first line of defense and best able to assess the facts on the ground,” explained Folmar.
Lassen County’s decision may have an impact on how smaller counties would respond to similar mini-outbreaks.
“Everyone knows that 1 in 10,000 threshold,” noted business advisor Lucy Skinner, who has helped many restaurants and bars reopen across the state. “In smaller counties, like Lassen showed, all they need is a few people contracting COVID-19 and they’re there.”
“Once one county does it, others follow. They did it when reopening to help businesses out, and if happens to others now, they’ll probably move back when they have to to avoid being known as the county with an outbreak in it that did nothing. A lot of restaurant owners had concerns of a drop in customers and tourists, and it isn’t unfounded.”
“No tourist wants to eat in an area with an outbreak. Yes, LA County and others have much larger numbers, but it can be much more debilitating in a smaller county due to significantly fewer options.”
As of Friday, Lassen County has not given any indication on when it would reopen back to Phase 3.